“It’s no wonder our government teacher in high school was such a liberal,” my brother said to me the other day. “How do you spend time reading and thinking about this stuff–about the idea of civics–and not start leaning to the left?” We laughed together. I don’t actually remember our teacher being terribly liberal–that probably would have upset Good Little Me, and I remember enjoying that class. Well, I didn’t love memorizing the names of every US Senator, but I did enjoy the class and the teacher. And I loved Fridays.

Fridays were West Wing days.

We worked our way through the first season with our weekly episode viewings, and we were quizzed over the real-life counterparts of the characters, as well as the executive and legislative procedures that were represented on the program. The show had only been on the air for a year at the time, so at some point during the year, my friends and I were doubling up and watching Season One in class and Season Two on TV. It was great. My senior class was deeply invested in the stories of President Bartlett, in debates between whether Josh Lyman or Sam Seaborn was hotter, in admiring CJ Cregg and Mrs. Bartlett, in the romantic tension between Josh and Donna. A bunch of us put West Wing-inspired pages in our senior memory book projects, and there is more than one reference to the show in my senior yearbook signatures. Like I said, it was great.

At the time, I was a conservative in just about every way, sad that I turned 18 three weeks after my chance to vote for George W. Bush in 2000. So when a Sunday School teacher at a neighboring church warned me that I shouldn’t be watching The West Wing because it was liberal propaganda and it could have a negative influence on me, I laughed him off. I was used to being told that movies and music and TV were bad for me, and I was only just starting to realize that the opposite was actually true. Movies and music and TV were GOOD for me!

That Sunday School teacher may have been more insightful than I realized, though. Now when I go back and watch episodes of The West Wing, I find myself agreeing with the liberal characters on almost every issue–and often I’m even more to the left than they are! I don’t think I understood the subtlety and context of many of the scenarios when I was watching in high school. I understood the plots of the episodes, but not how those applied to broader, real-life topics.

I’d be vastly over-simplifying things by saying that The West Wing turned me into a liberal. I do think that it was really helpful in forcing me to recognize that some of the caricatures I was used to about liberals and Democrats, which I had learned from church, friends, and adults in my life, were terribly wrong. I may not have known many real-life people who identified as liberal, but I knew these fictional characters.

Interestingly, this is sounding a lot like how I ended up recognizing that LGBT people were also real people outside of stereotypes.

Maybe it’s like Roger Ebert said, and movies (and I’d argue television, too, even if he didn’t), “are the most powerful aid to empathy, and good ones make us into better people.”

 

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